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To Illinois, it’s not just another bowl

CHAMPAIGN — Whether you’re talking about the economy or bowl games, ­inflation has a similar impact. It tends to devalue things.

With 70 of the nation’s 120 major-college programs playing in bowl games, many of those games aren’t exactly going to be worth their weight in gold.

That said, there’s a lot riding on Illinois’ Texas Bowl meeting with Baylor on Dec. 29 in Houston for Illini football.

With their ugly losses to ­Minnesota and Fresno State, the Illini took a lot of the luster off a surprisingly good 5-3 start. Heading to the Lone Star State with three losses in their last four games, the Illini need to handle the Bears for any number of reasons.

Momentum for offseason workouts. A little recruiting boost. And most importantly, giving a program that seems to be emerging from a two-year tailspin some positive energy among its wary fan base.

All of these things will be in play for Illinois and its lightning-rod coach, Ron Zook, who always seems to stir up the fans’ emotions.

“We’ve been in a two-year bowl drought, so I think it’s really important for us to get this win,’’ safety Tavon Wilson said Monday during Illinois’ bowl media day. “Baylor’s a pretty good team. We feel a win would give us momentum going into next year and help our program get back to where it should be. We feel as though we made progress this year, but a bowl win definitely would help with fans, recruiting, ­everything — just the feeling around this program.’’

Illinois’ first three losses — to Missouri, Ohio State and Michigan State — came against top-notch ­opponents with a combined record of 32-4. Even in Loss No. 4, a wacky 67-65 triple-overtime defeat at Michigan, Illinois’ offensive fireworks nearly offset the defensive breakdowns, particularly against the potent Wolverines offense.

But there’s no way to spin-doctor the losses to Minnesota and Fresno State. With those flat performances, the Illini need to beat Baylor for a lot more than momentum.

At 6-6, Illinois needs a victory to avoid a losing season.

“Yeah, that does seem a little strange,’’ quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. “But it gives you another thing that would be excellent about winning this bowl game.’’

After a 3-9 disaster in 2009, ­Illinois made major progress this fall. If it had showed up on defense in the last four games the way it did in the five before that, it could have been 9-3.

“When you look at six new ­coaches, a new offense, a new defense, a freshman quarterback, we’ve come a long way,’’ Zook said. “We really have. This bowl gives us more time to continue to improve. That’s the way we’re attacking this.’’

Zook has paid back the faith athletic director Ron Guenther showed in him a year ago, when Guenther ignored an outcry for Zook to be fired. New offensive coordinator Paul Petrino has made Illinois an effective scoring machine that averaged 42.8 points and 435.8 yards in its last six games.

And while the defense had painful lapses in Illinois’ final three losses, Vic Koenning put together a unit that had an impressive stretch in its first five Big Ten games.

“When you look at it, [the defense] got worn out,’’ Zook said. “[Against] Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State, Purdue, Indiana, we played great defense. Then we ran up against a team that probably played their best game in three years in Michigan, and we never really recovered from that in the Minnesota game.’’

Zook expects the 26 days between the 25-23 loss at Fresno State on Dec. 3 and the bowl game to give his ­defense time to regroup and his offense the practice time to stay sharp.

To outsiders, it’s easy to second-guess Illinois traveling to Fresno in December. To Zook, the point of playing that late game was to shorten the gap between the ­season and the postseason.

“We haven’t had a layoff,’’ he said. “When coach Guenther and I talked about extending the season, this is what we had in mind. It’s been a great thing.’’

That might resonate within the program. To outsiders, though, the Illini need to beat Baylor to restore some of the momentum that was lost with those three late losses.

Even in these bowl-inflationary times, it’s a lot easier to sell 7-6 as progress than 6-7.

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